aNewDomain — Europe should be more than a place you studied about in college or saw in movies. It’s a continent you should actually visit in order to soak in the culture and escape your comfort zone. There’s a lot more to the world than being American and spending some time in Europe is a great reminder of that.
First, though, you have to do a little homework. Putting together the trip of a lifetime doesn’t just fall into place. What you do before you even pack that first sweater can make the difference between a good and great visit.
Here’s what you need to know to plan the ultimate European trip.
Do you have one? If not, get started at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and get started on your passport there. You can’t acquire a passport online; that usually requires a trip to the post office. Bear in mind that some post offices ask that you make an appointment to apply for a passport and some don’t offer photo services. Many national drugstore chains will take your mug shot for a small fee.
Even if you have a passport, some countries won’t allow you to use it for entry if it’s less than six months from expiring. Oftentimes, you’ll also need to have at least two empty pages in your passport to use it.
While a U.S. passport is a valuable document, it doesn’t allow for entry to every European country. According to Wikipedia, an American passport makes you good to go in 174 countries, including most typical European destinations. But if you’re the type who wants to stretch your boundaries and see Belarus or Russia, start prepping early for the visa process.
Again, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs web site should be your first stop. Here you can find the who, what, when, where and how involved in getting documents necessary to open the doors to Russia and beyond.
Have you heart set on a trip to London? So did my wife and I when we were booking our first European trip in 2009. After checking airfares and hotel rates for weeks, we changed our focus and booked a week-long visit to Ireland and saved hundreds of dollars. We also had a great time in Dublin, staying at Clontarf Castle Hotel and can’t wait to go back.
By the way, airfares to Italy’s fashionable Milan are looking reasonable this fall (less than $700 from JFK). With Lake Como and Venice both short train rides away, Milan is the perfect jumping-off point for an Italian adventure.
Check the currency.
If you’re headed the Europe, chances are your destination uses the Euro. That’s good news in 2015. A stronger dollar and struggling economies across the Eurozone are making the currency more affordable than ever, trading at $1.13 on Feb. 1. Compare that to the U.K.’s Pound and its $1.51 rate. There are 19 countries that use the Euro, including awesome destinations such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Of course, there are several other nations — such as the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden — that have stayed true to their original currencies. Most retailers there will still accept the Euro.
Wherever you end up, there are plenty of apps that can do any conversion you need.
Get an affiliated credit card.
All the major airlines and hotel chains have credit cards that offer perks that range from free checked bags to early boarding to gratis nights. When my wife applied for and received Delta’s American Express card, she picked up 50,000 miles (enough for two free domestic flights) after making $1,000 worth of qualified purchases. That’s one ticket to Europe most of the time. With airlines making miles harder to earn, having an affiliated card helps travelers earn their awards a little quicker.
The Points Guy site is a good place to compare programs and choose which one is best for your needs.
Jump on the shoulder season.
Everyone likes traveling during the summer. It’s an American tradition. Of course, airlines and hoteliers know that, so they increase their rates accordingly. Buck the trend and go in March, April, September or October. You’ll save money, avoid crowds and experience Europe in all its spring and fall glory. Besides, Italy in the summer can be a hot, humid and crowded place. Rome in October is a gift from the heavens.
Upgrade your flight.
You don’t have to be a trust-funder to avoid the cattle call known as traveling coach. Most airlines offer a few extra inches of legroom for less than $100 each way. My wife and I exclusively travel on Delta, which has a good economy comfort zone on both domestic and international flights. Four more inches may not sound like a lot, but it’s a godsend when you’re on a six- to 10-hour overseas haul. It could be the difference between sleeping for a few hours and spending the flight wide-awake.
Book a flat.
Too old for a hostel? Want more room than the matchbox size of a typical European hotel? Vacation rental sites like airbnb HomeAway and VRBO offer thousands of spacious homes and apartments that you can call home for your trip. Renting an apartment or home allows you to experience the real Europe by staying in a neighborhood instead of a chain hotel.
As a bonus, many of these flats have washers and dryers (although some are condensed into one machine, a concept that never seems to work quite right). They also have kitchens, making home-cooked meals a possibility.
Oh, yeah, there’s also free Wifi in many locations. All the better for checking out what the poor suckers back home are doing while you’re living the Eurolife.
Take the train.
While Europe has more than its share of low-cost airlines, there’s nothing like seeing the French countryside through train windows. Europe’s mass-transit culture adds up to clean, comfortable trains that run on time and get you where you need to go affordably. Eurorail and Rail Europe are the dominant providers, but check the national lines for good deals. We took Swedish Rail last year from Stockholm to Copenhagen and paid less for first class than what other providers were charging for coach.
Insure your trip.
Most anything worth having is worth insuring. Travel is no different. For a couple hundred bucks or less, you can lock in a variety of services and guard your hefty investment.
Allianz, Travel Guard and TravelSafe are a few of the companies that offer plans covering canceled flights and trips, lost luggage, medical expenses and the unlikely event your travel provider goes bankrupt.
Take half the clothes you’ll need for the trip and do laundry along the way. If you rent a flat with a washer and dryer, you’re set. If you stay in a hotel, consider using a laundry service, especially if you’re staying in a decent-sized city.
Also, if you need to take a travel guide, get a pocket-sized one. Don’t weigh down your luggage with three or four books that you might never crack open. Not only will they make your bags tougher to lug, they may also push you over the standard 50-pound limit more airlines set.
Now that you’ve covered the basics, get ready for your European vacation. Like us, you’ll want to keep going back every year.
Come to think of it, it’s time to get busy planning that Milan trip.
Photos: Rodney Campbell